Christopher R.W Nevinson (1889 – 1946)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Whilst older films or pieces of music generally feel their age on account of their then nascent methods of capture, paintings can often come across as strikingly modern inspite of the century or more that separates the image from the viewing present. Art, it seems, tends to transcend and connect through its unfiltered access to expression. Today’s artist Christopher R.W Nevinson struck me precisely because of his urgency and evident endurance, his work forceful and delicate in its depiction of horrors both real & imagined.

‘Column on the March’ – 1917

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What first hits here is the immense sense of monotony, everything is patterned up and divided like a map as territory. From the uniform sky streaked across in various gasps of light, to the floor which is separated to uncertain gravel patterns, along with the aggressive clanking column of the soldiers themselves.

Occasionally a private’s gun will break off from the perpendicular of the pattern, but mostly it’s the clever use of the horses that allows the column to achieve a sense of depth and motion. The animals, with one noticeable towards the far left of the canvas and another squintable just at its close, act as markers that suggest distance, with the space between the riders growing shorter as the perspective drains out into the further side . Through doing this, Nevinson implies more horses on the line, indeed logically there would be one just off the right side of the painting as it cuts, a feeling that furthers the horror of the image as we are caught between a mere slice of this dominant irresistible march, rather than its end.

Though the image seems to suggest against it, it’s interesting to take the actual fighters as individuals. Under examination they break into basic shapes of confusing yet recognisable contortions. Cartoonish but nevertheless real, their odd futurist depiction ensures our eyes are stapled to their path just as they are.

Nevinson of course though is drawing our thoughts towards the monomaniacal nature of war, something that churns the individual to patriotic paste. A thought suggested by the breakdown of detail as the painting drives further towards its endless conclusion. Near our right hand side then is an interesting display of cobblestone design, with even the occasional face able to be discerned. Towards the end however, there’s nothing more than few brushstrokes posing as road as the men peel out into statistics.

 

‘Dance Hall Scene’ – 1913

Dance Hall Scene c.1913-14 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946

An odd perplexing marvel of a painting that fuses elements of Fauvism with Cubism, ‘Dance Hall Scene’ finds a wide range of humanity mingling as freely as Nevinson’s palette. From the familiar dancing partners at its middle, to the odd lion and menacing jester at its corner, instability reigns here as the party fragments and jitters. There’s a dance floor visible, as well as flowers too, but Nevinson does away easily with perspective and manner, pushing for a more accurate realisation of the blur these scenes do often become.

Soft edges of faces continually push out of the canvas against the scene. Some hang unfinished and incomplete, staring out isolated from within, others gaze on in bemusement. I especially love the visage just above the heavy browed figure of the corner, one in which the mouth comes where the nose should be, as well as a cocked leg able if effectively forming a brow. Whereas pure Cubism strives to present a circular whole of an image, as if it were traversed and appreciated throughout, here there seems to be have been more of an explosion than an exposition, as limbs and faces codify to a uproarious mania.

The carnival tones are expertly presented, with an almost hallucinatory imaging on the bottom figures as their faces and lapels become blending to intriguing combinations. Some are fully formed beings here, their entire shape on display to scrutinise, others such as the crowd at the top are shown only as faces akin to a flickering candle flame.

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Anna Lea Merritt (1844 – 1930)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

‘War’ – 1883

As to what conflict, or indeed what date said battle would be taking place, Merritt leaves us ignorant. ‘War’ rather focuses on the two eternal participants of combat: those who become directly involved, and those watching that they leave behind.

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All the women here are exquisitely imagined, with terrific detail to their clothing and manner. An anonymous duo on the right corner perch in from the edge of the frame, one curious for further information, the other tight lipped with eyes glazed over, presumably watching the signalled march trounce further off into the horizon. The woman they stand behind is particularly well realised, her face a visage of trouble and tense worry. Perhaps she herself has some implications in allowing the men to leave, her fingers clasped tight around an ornate mysterious key.

At the left a redhead whose dress is of a fantastic depth, draws attention to the soldiers trudging off down below, the key holder in the centre however clearly already too aware of this. When these passing men become noticed by the viewer, it creates an interesting dissonance within the image, with our eyes being pulled between the forceful progress at ground level, and the emotional distress it causes up above, unseen to the men. Unbeknownst to both, a child looks away between the upset women, hers perhaps the greatest tragedy as this world of war is one she must grow up within.

The lack of concrete information within ‘War’ signals a universal nature to the occasion, with other bystanders such as those featured here being visible outside on a left-hand window. More than 130 years after this image has been painted, the same conclusions can be ruefully drawn. We, like the centrepiece onlookers here, can but helplessly watch on from the sidelines of history as war continues to move through and march over.

‘Love Locked Out’ – 1890

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Made in memory of a husband who died but three months into their marriage, Merritt here contemplates the insurmountable nature of death, painting herself as Cupid pushing up in vain against the door of a mausoleum.  Delicate evocation of the child aside, there is much to admire in the composition of the painting, with the roses arching up above the would be entrant, their vines mimicking in their eternal ache, the same yearnings of the boy.

There is a naturalness to the entirety of the proceedings, from the gently toppled pot at the foot of the stare, to the nude figure standing atop it. Everything comes in grinned golden hues, with the striking nature of the image allowing it to be both memorable and entrancing.

Writing just after the painting was made, Merritt reflected on her percieved importance of companionship to the act of creation:

“The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic. It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help. A husband would be quite useless.”

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Peter Doig (1959 –

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

I’ve spent the last few days listening to some new music, thinking whilst Kate Tempest & Akira Kosemura knock it out of their respective parks, about variances between painting & music. How music feels personally much more about the excitement of the unseen whole and the potential for its completion. A new song is one heard new in so many ways, each return finding new ideas creeping out from the woodwork & its fretboard.

Painting is more immediate, there’s less to catch in a sense. Songs are chases, lyrics and choruses hanging ephemera that soon becomes something else entirely. Yet there is an odd paradox within painting, that whatever is portrayed on the canvas, from the minimal stillness of today’s artist, Peter Doig, to the bombastic war zones of Eugène Delacroix, everything contained within is in status and up for scrutiny. Ironically meaning that the greatest literal action possible on a canvas is paint drying.

Picking the two paintings today for Peter Doig was tough as the incredibly accomplished artist (His 2007 work White Canoe selling at Sothebys for a then European living record of $11.3 million) has a style so wild and varied. I begin with a piece I saw at this year’s excellent John Moores Painting Prize, which showcased ‘Blotter’ as a past 1993 winner in its archives, following on from its sombre affections to a later piece of Doig’s, ‘White Canoe’.

‘Blotter’ – 1993

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The bottom half of this work is so intensely captivating that at first we fail to see that the trees and bracken landscape high above the slope, are about as lifelike as the reflected life the boy ponders beneath him. An easy mistake to make however considering the entrancing perplexity of the narrative on display. Doig’s far off capture of contemplation showing both the boy reflective of his own image and thoughts, but also reflective of ourselves as we too scour the meditative image before us.

We’re watching him watch himself, which gifts an odd intimacy. ‘Blotter’ seems aware of this, referring within its title both to, as Doig put it, ‘the notion of being absorbed into a place, but also to the process through which the painting developed: soaking paint into the canvas’.

There is exquisite skill throughout; the water forming a delicate swirl of distortions, masterfully mixing both the reflections themselves from elsewhere in the image, as well as the moments in which these echoes intersperse and spill. The very weather of the scene is dealt with equally well, small nicks and white thumbing against the frame suggesting old reel footage, evoking a place out of time.

Logic reigns in the ordering of the presentation here, with everything coming across horizontal in bands of colour. The boy skewered between two certainties amid his contemplation. The lower portion featuring the exuberance of another life, the higher middle a jagged depthless quality to a reality of ours.

‘White Canoe’ – 1997

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The suggestion of voyeurism is magnified by the inclusion of a fence looking out to the warm sticky water. Colours hang and languish lazy, a landscape uncomplicated by detail in which the hand of man passively glides through rather than engages and changes.  From our privy view behind the bank the real barrier of the wild stands staunch and celebratory.

There could potentially be a disturbing visage here, the passive passed out passenger keeled over and taken forward on the water’s momentum alone. But with its inverted colours and out of place photorealist canoe, it becomes more an opportunity to imagine places like this that are so free normally of human gaze. The symbolic pioneering canoe confidently exploring amid the barren landscape of nowhere in particular.

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Recent article on 2014 John Moores Painting Prize entries, a competition Doig won in 1993 with ‘Blotter’.

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René Magritte (1898 – 1967)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Whilst fellow Surrealists such as Ernst & Masson rely on the outlandish and insane to communicate their ideas, Magritte operates within a paradox, his paintings reaching abstraction through the presentation of a familiar reality. Amidst his skilful natural brushwork there comes a truthfulness to whatever his diverse mind imagines, experiences here then becoming surreal and uncomfortable precisely because of the intrusion of the commonplace.

 ‘Collective Invention’ – 1934

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We see this in the quietly disturbing, yet oddly logical, Collective Invention. With its anatomically reversed mermaid, featuring a fish top and eroticized female bottom half, lying stranded and helpless out on an anonymous shore.

From the back of the image Magritte has the waves curving forward, gently ushering our eye to the uncomfortably glassy gaze of the unseemly synthesis. This then is not pure fantasy; rather there is logic here that makes it all the more alarming and affecting as neither part of the creature is truly contradictive of the other; the skin tones of the feminine legs fade naturally upward to the steely flesh of the fish as if it was mere evolution. The alluring hips too ache temptingly up out of the skin before the wide dulled fins.

It does however seem to behave more like an animal, its helpless caught pose reminiscent more of a drying silent fish than a human. The potential though for it to stand and move is what disturbs me most, to see this creation upright would for me be that true lapsing into unreality. Classically indicative of the painter’s style & tone however, we as an audience aren’t pushed this far in terms of our perceptions. Rather Magritte hangs us on the edge of the incongruous but never fully releases to chaos such as the aforementioned Masson is so fond of doing.

There is of course wonderful technique here too; the delicate wet deposits of damp sand around the creature’s ankles, the slow crawl of the fog to the back of the canvas. Magritte really can paint and it’s quite incredible he could conjure such alarming ideas and still execute them in such an elegant and refined yet cowing manner.

Through such fragmented verisimilitude comes questions, most importantly of all perhaps, where did this come from? Well, the sea behind of course. So why then does it exist? Who caught it? The fish looking out to us seems as ignorant and perplexed as we will always be.

‘The Month of the Grape Harvest’ – 1959

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Similar to the feeling that the mutant of Collective Invention could rise up and gawp forward, Magritte within The Month of the Grape Harvest plays menacingly with potential.

Though only two clear rows of the anonymous bowler-hatted men can be seen sealing the window view, more can be discerned by looking deeper. Edges of further hats peek from behind the wall, with a single placid mouth seen also between the crossed shoulders of two men on the right of the pane. Through their synonymous height a clear division between themselves and the view above is defined, a barricade that adopts an odd aggression in spite of the monotone passivity held by all.

There’s a profound poetry here, one that dwells upon the impossibility of keeping out the outside world. Shutting windows or closing doors then is but an illusion that we are in effect stopping anything. Arguably a window that looks out to the world rather than this army of men is just as confrontational in its reminders of a time and existence that carries on without you.

The hollowness of the room suggests that the people themselves are starting out into nothing; Magritte then here showing us nothing confronting nothing, a commonplace occurrence within the world that continues when we shut the blinds or close our eyes.

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